Counting All the Votes: The League’s Support for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and How it Will Help make Democracy Work by Jacob Hurt, LWV-Fairfax Area
(Mr. Hurt looks at some numbers behind the 2016 Presidential Election, discusses the arguments for and problems with the Compact, and how the Compact will help Make Democracy Work.)
At this year’s National Convention, the League pledged to support the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which states pledge to assign their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes nationwide. To date, 12 states accounting for 172 electoral votes have signed on. The Compact will go into effect once enough states to account for 270 votes sign on1. This will ensure the winner of the national popular vote wins the Electoral College. The latest state to join was Connecticut, whose 7 votes were added to the total in May of this year2.
The Compact has also passed at least one house in 11 states accounting for 89 Electoral Votes3. Virginia’s 13 votes were the subject of House Bill 99, which was left on the table by a Privileges and Elections Subcommittee in February4. Taken together, these 102 votes would place the Compact into effect by awarding 274 votes should they all pass.
Those advocating for the Compact claim it is needed to drive up turnout and de-polarize presidential campaigns by making candidates appeal beyond the handful of so-called “Battleground States”. Its opponents claim the Compact is unconstitutional and that cities will dominate campaigns and leave rural areas out altogether. On only 5 occasions – the latest being President Trump’s 2016 win – has the winner of the Electoral College not won the nationwide popular vote5. So why do we need it? Can it actually work? Will it make democracy work?
The Need: Better Turnout, Broader Appeal, Every State a Battleground
Since the 2000 election – the last time the Electoral College winner did not win the popular vote – nationwide turnout has never been above 60%6. We know turnout is a key measure of the health of a democracy, and chronically low turnout is a symptom of a larger problem with presidential elections. The heart of the matter is this: The current system of electoral voting undermines “One Person, One Vote” by 1) filtering votes through the College’s “Winner-take-all” system and 2) leaving vast numbers of voters out. So-called “Battleground States” – which are generally considered to be close by vote margin, inconsistent in which party wins, and carry a large number of electoral votes7 – get the vast majority of attention from campaigns8. As a result, in states where a party has won consistently, voters are not seen as important to the outcome as those in a battleground state.
While there are many reasons for low turnout, let’s make the case that this “Winner-take-all, Battleground” system is part of the problem by looking at Connecticut – the latest state to sign on – and see how the Compact would help there, then apply that reasoning to Virginia.
In 2016, Connecticut’s 7 Electoral Votes were awarded to Secretary Clinton. Connecticut is considered a “Blue State”, not a battleground, because Democrats have consistently won statewide. Only one presidential campaign event was held there9. Secretary Clinton’s win by a margin of 224,357 votes meant that 673,215 votes for the President were filtered out. 502,235 voters didn’t vote10. At the time of the election, there were 492,000 Republican voters, 869,000 Democratic voters, and – here’s a twist – over 995,000 unaffiliated and minor-party voters11! It’s not possible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the President could have won CT, but what if the focus was on its 2.1 million individual votes instead of writing off its 7 electoral votes as guaranteed to Democrats?
We know Virginia was a battleground state in 2016 – 23 campaign events were held here12. Secretary Clinton won in Virginia by 212,030 votes, meaning that another 1,769,443 votes for the President were filtered out in the process. Virginia boasted a robust 72% turnout for the election13, and while it’s hard to definitively prove the turnout was boosted by the attention from the campaigns, it is safe to assert that Virginians knew their vote would have an impact because the state was a battleground.
Look again, however, at Secretary Clinton’s margins of victory in both states by individual votes. She won CT (7 electoral votes) by 224,357 and VA (13 electoral votes) by 212,030. Similar vote margins between the two – yet only VA was considered a battleground state. “Winner-take-all” meant that she was awarded more electoral votes for a narrower win! And here’s another turnout figure: A total of 2,047,346 voters in the 2 states didn’t vote. 2,442,658 votes for the President were ‘filtered out’ by the “winner-take-all” system. The number of votes ‘filtered out’ by the Electoral College exceeded the number of people who didn’t vote!
The numbers can be cut other ways, too – but I’ve made my point. Poll numbers also reflect a growing desire among Americans for a popular vote14. Whatever the reasoning was for putting the College in place, it isn’t working in today’s polarized, low-turnout Presidential elections. Shouldn’t every vote count equally in the election of the person said to represent all Americans?
Opposition to the Compact and Problems with Implementation
Arguments against the Compact basically fall into two areas: That it would result in populated areas being the focus of campaigns to the neglect of rural areas, and that it is unconstitutional. On its face, the ‘populated areas argument’ seems to make sense. But that argument assumes these areas (big cities like New York and populous states like California) contain only voters in the party historically winning the state. It also assumes these areas contain the majority of all voters nationwide. Simply put, that’s not accurate. But I’m not going to cite population statistics and nitpick the political breakdown of America’s major metropolitan areas – I’ve tossed enough numbers out in this article and others do that job better15, 16. Instead of more statistics, let’s look again at Virginia.
The state’s gerrymandered maps give more power to rural areas at the expense of urban areas. The state – with several urban areas and large rural areas – was won by Secretary Clinton by only 212,030 out of over 3.9 million votes cast17! If the ‘populated areas only’ argument were true, gerrymandering wouldn’t work, and the win margin shows that rural areas retain plenty of weight.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution allows the states to direct how their Electoral Votes are assigned18. The Compact would change how a presidential candidate would be elected, but no amendment would be needed. There is, however, another clause in the Constitution governing Interstate Compacts. Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 requires states to get permission from Congress to enter into Interstate Compacts19. Virginia is already a member of over 50 such compacts20, and because there are so many in use today, the mechanism for getting the required permission from Congress – normally a Resolution granting it – is well understood21. Such permission has not yet been granted, but it only needs to happen once the Compact gets 270 or more votes, and before it is used to tally the votes in an election.
There is also the problem of certifying a national popular vote. Who gets to count and certify all the votes nationwide? There is no current formal process for this, but it could easily be accomplished by each state sharing its certified totals and counting them up for themselves. Fraud would be difficult to commit here, given the publicity of the results, processes unique to each state, and the number of high-profile officials that would have to be involved.
In short, there are details to be worked out in order for the Compact to take full effect, but it is constitutional. It doesn’t leave out rural areas – in fact, it reinforces their weight and gives voice to voters who would otherwise be filtered out. It can be accomplished within existing legislative and legal frameworks. The final step of Congress certifying the electoral vote count will still happen as written in the Constitution.
The Compact will Make Democracy Work
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a creative solution to a process in dire need of reform. It will modernize the way the President and Vice-President are selected without the difficulty of a constitutional amendment. Campaigns would have to be less polarizing, more broadly appealing, and acknowledge that all voters are equal in order to win. It would transcend state boundaries and ensure “One Person, One Vote” in the election of the person who represents all Americans. Approving the Compact will be a major step towards “Making Democracy Work”.
1. The homepage of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or “the Compact’ for short. https://www.nationalpopularvote.com. Accessed 6 July 2018.
2. ibid., in the section discussing Connecticut. Its Governor signed the legislation on May 24th. Status for each state is also available.
3. ibid., on the homepage. The goal of the movement is to have the Compact in effect for the 2020 Presidential Election.
4. “HB 99 Presidential Electors; National Popular Vote Compact”, http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+sum+HB99. Accessed 6 July 2018. Subcommittee #2’s 4-2 vote was along party lines, with Delegate O’Quinn not voting.
5. Ingraham, Christopher. “A national popular vote just got one step closer to reality”. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/05/08/a-national-popular-vote-just-got-one-step-closer-to-reality/?utm_term=.c930bfc151ff. Accessed 6 July 2018.
6. Hubby, Kristen. “How many Americans actually vote?”. The Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/layer8/voter-turnout-2016/ Accessed 6 July 2018.
7. Shepard, Steven. “The 11 states that will determine the 2016 election”. Politico. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-battleground-states-224025. Accessed 7 July 2018.
8. From the website of the Compact, https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/campaign-events-2016. Data was provided by FairVote. An ‘event’ is defined as a public event where a candidate is soliciting the state’s voters that occurred between the convention and the election. Other metrics in use for measuring the attention a state gets include advertising dollars spent in a state and donations to a campaign from a state.
9. ibid. Specifically, President Trump visited Fairfield, CT on August 13th, 2016, for the first and only time as the party’s nominee.
Also see: Lemire, Jonathan. “Donald Trump Rallies Crowd in Fairfield”. NBC Connecticut. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/Donald-Trump-to-Appear–390074622.html. Accessed 7 July 2018.
10. “Election Night Reporting, 2016 Presidential Election”, Connecticut Secretary of the State. http://ctemspublic.pcctg.net/#/home. Accessed 7 July 2018.
11. “Registration and Party Enrollment Statistics as of November 1, 2016”. Connecticut Secretary of the State. https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/sots/ElectionServices/Registration_and_Enrollment_Stats/Nov16RE-pdf.pdf?la=en. Accessed 6 July 2018.
12. See note 8 above.
13. “Summary of Virginia Registration & Turnout Statistics”, Virginia Department of Elections. https://www.elections.virginia.gov/resultsreports/registration-statistics/registrationturnout-statistics/index.html. Accessed 6 July 2018.
14. Dutton, Sarah et al. “Poll: More Americans believe popular vote should decide the president”. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-more-americans-believe-popular-vote-should-decide-the-president/. Accessed 7 July 2018.
15. Koza, John. “Myths About Big Cities”. YouTube video hosted on the website of the Compact. 29 December 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=_gbwv5hf2Ps. Accessed 6 July 2018.
16. Anuzis, Saul. “Don’t believe the myths about a national popular vote”. The Hill. http://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/386588-dont-believe-the-myths-about-a-national-popular-vote. Accessed 7 July 2018.
17. See note 13 above.
18. This website has anything and everything you wanted to know about the Constitution and its contents: “The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.” https://congress.gov/constitution-annotated from the Library of Congress. Any text from the Constitution I cite here came from this document, available there: “The Constitution of the United States of America: Literal Print”. https://www.congress.gov/content/conan/pdf/GPO-CONAN-2017-6.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2018.
20. Council of State Governments, “National Center for Interstate Compacts”. http://apps.csg.org/ncic/. Accessed 7 July 2018.
21. Council of State Governments, “Understanding Interstate Compacts”. http://www.gsgp.org/media/1313/understanding_interstate_compacts-csgncic.pdf. Accessed 7 July 2018.